“What can we do so that they can have a successful life?” This is the question Rich Wekerle and Tom Fleming were asking themselves about migrants when they decided to found the Migrant Carpentry Workshop with Sr. Judy Bourg, SSND.
The goal of the workshop is very simple: “teach somebody a skill they could use under any circumstances for the rest of their lives.”
Rich Wekerle: All border towns are basically the same. They’re very difficult places to live. Most people in our Agua Prieta are not from Agua Prieta, they’re from somewhere else.
Agua Prieta, Mexico
Initially when we came here, we were working with migrants who were being sent back from the US. For many of them, they were saying, “I’m going to wait a week and I’m going back over the fence again into the States.” So you say, “What can we do so that they could have a successful life?”
Tom Fleming: We want to assist them in finding a way to support themselves.
Rich: And we ended up teaching them to make furniture out of pallets. Victor, our head carpenter was actually a chef at a Mexican restaurant in Georgia and he’s an excellent chef.
Victor: [in Spanish] I arrived in Agua Prieta three years ago. I found the workshop when I first arrived.
Rich: They’ve just been sent back, many times they don’t even know where they are. What’s next for them? We were barely up and running, but almost as soon as he got there, he wanted to work.
They are starting to come up with ideas and telling us, “Maybe we should be doing it that way.”
Victor: [in Spanish] I had never worked in carpentry before. This is where I learned everything. Even though we’re using pallets, I’ve learned so much.
Rich: We bring the furniture across the border. We pay duty on it.
Tom: And so we take it to farmer’s markets. They’re looking around, and it’s “You make this?” No, we have a school. Young migrant men are making this. Made out of pallets. And they look at you like, “Pallets?” Yeah, they dismantle pallets, they make furniture, this is it. This is the finished product.
Rich: The proceeds of the sale are taken back and given to the migrants who are building this furniture. We just volunteer.
Tom: We have more than they have so we’re asked to share.
Victor: [in Spanish] This is giving us an opportunity to work, earn some money, and grow, rather than walking the streets looking for work.
Rich: If you look at what we do here from that perspective, it makes it a lot easier to reach out to your neighbor and want to help the people in wherever.
Tom: This system is not designed for them to stay there forever.
Rich: The goal is very simple: teach somebody a skill that they will be able to use under any circumstances for the rest of their lives.
Victor: [in Spanish] I’ve learned so much here that when we’re done, I think it’d be easy for me to get another job or even start my own workshop.